Lightfooting the mighty Edmund Fitzgerald

Nov 5, 2003 at 12:00 am

I had the chills, the shivers. It was the fall of ’82. Ten years old, sitting cross-legged on the floor of my cozy bedroom in suburban Northville when I got the mortality scared into me by a simple song. Sure I had already thrilled to the illicit dope of the Sex Pistols and giggled like a jabbering monkey at Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back” whenever my parents were unwise enough to not hit “Forward” on the 8-track.

But I had just heard the Song. Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” And I’ll be damned if the nascent morbid curiosity that found vampires and Sasquatch around every corner and under every car and my socially awkward interest in history weren’t on a collision course with my fit-to-burst devotion to the life-altering effects of pop music.

In retrospect, I realize that to most of the outside world, Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” was a piece of FM-pop tributary that had more in common with Don McLean than Dylan, but to me it was the gateway to Mystery with a capital “M” (and I’m not the kind of person to throw around hyperbolic invocations of the divine lightly).

“The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down/of the big lake they call Gitcheegumee.” I mean what the hell was that?!?! “Superior it’s said never gives up her dead/ when the skies of November turn gloomy.” Lightfoot goes on to reel in the listener by reeling off the tale — in perfectly economical, intimate singsong narrative — of the sinking of the largest of ships on the largest of inland seas during one of the largest storms seen in recent history. Hooked. It may not have been the most disastrous wreck off Superior’s shoreline, but Lightfoot’s song has, in many ways made the Fitzgerald a symbol for the tragedy of all the Great Lakes shipwrecks.

For me, the fascination with the Edmund Fitzgerald story began early. As fate would have it, my uncle had worked on the Fitzgerald weeks before it went down. He transferred to the Detroit River mailboat the J.M. Prescott — the very boat that would have delivered glad tidings and news of home to the men of the Fitzgerald had it not sunk 17 miles off the coast of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

So began a lifelong fascination with a song, an event and a mystery that would find me “shush-ing” more passengers in my various old-model Fords than my teenage years would suggest.

The song is, after all, the most eloquent toast at the most public and ongoing ’70s-vintage FM wake this side of “Ode to Billie Joe.”

Being there

You have to drive through Paradise to get to the Graveyard of Ships. Or, more accurately, if you’re coming from downstate, you have to not blink as you blow through Paradise on your way to Whitefish Point, the farthest spit of land arcing out into Lake Superior off the Shipwreck Coast. It’s 350 miles north of Detroit. The lighthouse on the point’s tip was likely the last thing U.S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald Captain Ernest McSorley saw before he and the 28 souls in his charge aboard the 729-foot iron freighter perished in 40-foot seas blown by 90-mile-per-hour winds. It was 28 years ago this week.

Today at Whitefish Point, you can visit the Shipwreck Museum — a surprisingly well-kept attraction as UP tourist traps go — at Whitefish Point. All whitewashed post-Victorian restoration, mold-tinged history. You can even stay in the lighthouse if you pony up the dough.

Visit in July and you’ll step out of balmy breeze and bright sunshine into a gloomy blue-hued hall with shining, glass-encased exhibits of shipwreck artifacts, glorified flotsam and portraiture commemorating the thousands of men on hundreds of ships lost in Lake Superior.

But piped in through the museum’s speakers on perpetual loop is a song about one boat, a tragic proxy for all the rest. The singer tells the story of the Witch of November that stole the lives of those who had earlier that day, under clouding skies, “left fully loaded for Cleveland.”

Well, technically, they were headed for Zug Island. Which is one of the reasons this Sunday, at Mariners’ Church in Detroit, the church bell will ring 29 times — in Lightfoot’s words, once for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The enduring eulogy

It could be that it’s just a damn crafty folk tune in the tradition of ancient murder ballads and timeless sea chanteys. But in the interest of objectivity, I asked a few people whose musical taste or songwriting chops I value to weigh in on the subject. And their connections ranged from nonexistent to banal to sublime. Oh, but read on, won’t ye?

“I like the tune,” says the most cynical person I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, Small Stone Records’ Scott Hamilton.

“When you hear the song you can picture the events of that night in your head... which says a lot.

“‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ is one of those ’70s classics that probably hits a bigger chord with anyone in the Great Lakes region, but when that song came out I was living somewhere in New England and had never even been to Michigan... [and] if that tune comes on the radio, I am turning it up.”

But, I wondered, could there be a generational gap at work here? Does the song mean the same thing to people who were born after the sinking, before they were conscious of radio? I asked Saturday Looks Good to Me main man Fred Thomas, who was born shortly after the Fitz went down.

“It played on the radio from time to time when I was growing up, but I always confused it for ‘The Day The Music Died,’” says Thomas, who, it must be said, is more aware and connected to music and its transformative powers than 99.99 percent of the humans walking the planet (that I’ve met so far).

“The line ‘Does anyone know where the love of God goes, when the waves turn the minutes to hours,’” remembers Blanche’s Dan Miller — himself no stranger to penning and interpreting tales of heartache and woe through song.

“Things get really sparse there and this line does what a great storytelling lyric should do ... puts you right in that situation ... the impending doom just seeps into you while you listen to it.

“I loved the classic storytelling form of it, the broad setting at the beginning, then getting specific,” continues Miller. “The call and response of the cook saying ‘It’s too rough to feed ya,’ to the captain’s ‘It’s been good to know ya.’”

But I wanted to know, too, from someone who grew up within a UP commute distance from Whitefish Point. So I turned to Mike Walker of the Finer Things (née Bogue), who grew up, literally, on the shores of Lake Superior. (And, it should be said, he is of the same micro-generation as Thomas and my younger brother Matt — who is also sucked in by the tune).

“I like the song, much to the chagrin of all those around me,” says Walker. My appreciation of the piece only increased when I heard the Butthole Surfers do an impromptu version of the song on a radio interview, nothing short of amazing there.”

And here Walker cuts to the true heart of the song, the way it hijacks the imagination.

“Then there’s the issue of when you’re a kid and you can’t grasp the size of things. I once attempted to ‘dive’ for the ship,” he recalls, “not realizing that the strip of beach by where I grew up was nowhere near the fall of the mighty Fitz.

“Around the same time I thought the Sistine Chapel was in Marquette too. Go figure.”


Cut to November 1993. It is nearly closing time at the Gaelic League in downtown Detroit. Barely 21 years old and my gathered friends and I are swaying in that way that 21-year-olds are wont to do at 2 a.m. — beers in hand and whiskey in belly. It is the kind of hazy arrogant glory of youth that taunts mortality. We have finally, after hours of cajoling, gotten Detroit folksinger and League weekend troubadour Larry Larson to let loose his ripping and dead-Lightfoot-ringer version of “The Wreck.” And no word of a lie, by the time Larson has rhetorically, lyrically asked, “Does anyone know where the love of God goes/when the waves turn the minutes to hours,” the five friends at my table and the 20 other folks there besides have dropped what it was they were prattling on about and are now locked in a moment. Beers sweating rings on the table, our eyes are cast downward.

For what is the power of song if not a vessel through which we share our most primordial essence — that commingling of deep midnight fear, visceral agitations, the coursing of blood through veins, the simultaneous celebration and mourning of our flickering presence.

In the cloak of an FM-radio-friendly folk-rock tune, Lightfoot managed a trick of transcendence in the service of 29 men who were handed over to nature’s mysterious grasp on the night of November 9, 1975. The song takes us out onto the waters and offers us a glimpse into our own fragile humanity.

At Whitefish Point you can walk down to the water, slip off your shoes and wade into Superior’s chill. Even in the depths of a late July balm, with breeze-blown waves licking your kneecaps, you can sense the raw power of the inland sea. And if Lightfoot’s deceptively simple, deeply humanistic memorial song for the lost isn’t rattling around in your head, then you’re simply not listening hard enough.


The Edmund Fitzgerald memorial will be held at Sunday, Nov. 9, 11 a.m., at the Mariners’ Church of Detroit (170 E. Jefferson, just east of the Detroit Civic Center). For info, call 313-259-2206.

Chris Handyside writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]